When we think of the Puritans we often think of holier than thou sort who thought of themselves as a little lower than the angels themselves, or we think of staunch, stoic types dressed only like a pilgrim that never smiled and pulled away from society in general. Really it’s not fair to throw out a blanket statement about all Puritans…or any people group in general really. The pilgrims were actually a very diverse group, where as some would be stoic, saying the Christ himself never laughed. Others were known to be the quite jovial practical jokers type. And as for being dressed in all black, and never smiling…black was considered to be your “Sunday best” which you would wear when posing for a portrait, and you never smiled when posing for a portrait. Some Puritans were even known to dress in the best clothes of the period…powdered wig and all…and some even found it hard to drink water when they ran out of beer. So to say all Puritans were this way or that way would be quite misleading.
The term “puritan” came about as an insult in England around the time Elizabeth became queen. You had your “papists” on one side and you had your “perfectionist” or “puritan” on the other. And as far as considering themselves to be holier than thou, any quick study of puritan literature will tell you how painfully aware they were of their own inner sinfulness.
The one thing that did unite the Puritans was their love of the Bible, their love of studying the Bible and the love for hearing good sermons. Again and again we hear of stories of Puritans traveling hours just to hear a good long sermon and of how they considered a good Bible study better than an evening’s dancing. In fact, sermons up to seven hours long were not unheard of. To us that sounds at best boring, and at worst deranged, but you have to remember that these are people that hadn’t had access to the Bible. Now they could hear and read God’s own words, and to see in them such good news, that God saves sinners and not on the basis of how well they repent but solely on the basis of His own grace…it was a breath of fresh air coming out from under the papacy.
The whole story of the puritans is impossible to understand without knowing and appreciating that, for the Puritans, the Bible was the most valuable thing this world affords us, Puritanism was about applying the reformation to all of life and bringing the entirety of life under the sole authority of the Bible.
For the Puritan it wasn’t enough to say that England was a protestant country, as Queen Elizabeth declared in 1559, while this was good enough for Elizabeth the Puritans wouldn’t be satisfied until everyone in England understood that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. It wasn’t enough to reform how the church operated, it was about reforming individual lives and conforming all of life to scripture.
Have you ever attended a church that had a morning service and an evening service? The idea for that came from the Puritans. Numbers 28:9 speaks of two burnt offerings each Sabbath, so the Puritans, who loved preaching anyway, began having two services each Sunday in order to better conform to scripture.
The Puritans began to wonder if the model of church structures they had been following the in Church of England really held to scripture or should the Church of England look more like the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. This kind of talk sounded like anarchy to Elizabeth who ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury to put an swift end to the Puritans church meetings. The Archbishop didn’t see the harm in the Puritans meetings and saw quite the benefit from them so he refused the Queen. He was swiftly removed from his position and put under house arrest. Elizabeth’s new Archbishop of Canterbury obliged the Queen and demanded that all clergy sign statements saying they would adhere to the Common Book of Prayer, the many could not and were removed from their positions. These were dark days for the Puritans during the last days of Elizabeth’s reign. Their only hope was Elizabeth’s successor, James VI of Scotland.
James VI was raised on a diet of haggis and Calvinism, with him; at last the Puritans thought they would have their properly reformed monarch. When James took the throne the Puritans were quick to present him with a petition from the puritans asking for several changes be made to the Church of England. The problem was James was used to a more fiery, take-no-prisoners style of John Knox follower in Scotland and the Puritans were so polite about their requests that James didn’t take them to be all that serious about their requests, so he dismissed them.
For James reform was all very well and good as long as it did not involve any chipping away at his divinely given authority as king. The only idea that James did really like was the idea of writing a new Bible, at last he could be rid of the Geneva bible with all those troublesome margin notes about disobedience to a bad king. So King James authorized a version of the Bible to be commissioned.
Sometimes it seemed that James was for the Puritans, electing well-known Puritans to Parliament and other times it seemed he went out of his way to antagonize them. For example in 1618 James issued his Book of Sports which stated that any sport that did not involve cruelty to animals was a way to acceptable to pass a Sunday afternoon. For the Puritan ministers, who were strict Sabbethians, this was a slap in the face; of course every Puritan minister was required by law to read the declaration to their congregation on Sunday morning…usually they would add their own two cents at the end, something like “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”
For all the Puritans who had been waiting and enduring Elizabeth’s reign of compromise and persecution thinking James would be the answer, his reign was proving to be a great disappointment. Some fled England for Holland, which was a popular choice, but tough living conditions there made some a bit wary of choosing that as a destination. In 1620 one congregation met up with a small band of immigrants in Plymouth and embarked aboard the Mayflower for the new world. It was a move that captured the Puritans imagination, fleeing England and persecution for a new land that they could colonize and delegate how they had wanted all along. There they would establish a new colony, and a fully reformed society, it would be a city on a hill, a beacon for all to behold. It was an idea so attractive few could resist and soon many were fleeing for the new world.
Without the Puritans of course there would be no United States and of all that could be said about this group of religious zealots I will simply say that they had some lofty goals. A fully reformed society would be, I say, too much to hope for. It’s hard enough to have one fully reformed congregation. I want to pose this question though: Was it right of the Puritans to flee England? Or should they have instead submitted to those in authority over them?
The Puritans, as a movement in England, died out slowly, with so many leaving for the new world and subsequent strife under bad kings they just sort of faded away. I would say their lasting legacy, aside from the US, would be their love of the Bible, Bible study and for asking us the all-important question: Is Jesus precious to you?
Two Puritans of note, if you want to spend a couple of bucks on some good Puritan literature, are Richard Sibbes and Richard Baxter.
Richard Sibbes book The Bruised Reed is an excellent book and The Reformed Pastor and The Godly Home by Richard Baxter are also two excellent books, worth your 99 cents at the Kindle store.